The city of Aalst in Belgium is located only 51 km from the Kaserne Dossin in Mechelen, the transit camp from where more than 25,000 Jews and Roma were deported from 1942 to 1944 on 28 transports to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Only 1,219 Jews survived. A Holocaust Museum in Mechelen recounts these tragic events.
Aalst is famous for its infamous annual traditional carnival which almost every year displays antisemitic floats. Last year, Jewish groups, but also the European Commission, condemned the carnival’s racist and antisemitic caricatures on display, including a float featuring two giant puppets of Orthodox Jews with hooked noses and rats sitting on money bags.
Caricatures which shocked the Jewish community as they were reminiscent of Nazi period propaganda.
In December, UNESCO, the Paris-based United Nations agency for education and culture, decided to remove the carnival from its ”World Cultural Heritage” list.
It said in a statement that it ‘’stands by its founding principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect among peoples and condemns all forms of racism, antisemitism and xenophobia.’’
Despite this decision and overall condemnation, organisers of the 2020 carnival edition released at the end of last year dozens of ribbons depicting Jews in a stereotypical fashion with a hat, ringlets, a hooked nose and golden teeth. They also made fun of UNESCO.
One month after ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, the Aalst carnival procession which will take place on 23 February is expected to display again the puppets dressed as Jews with hooked noses. The Forum of Jewish Organizations said it submitting a new complaint to the European Commission in advance and is hoping to prevent the procession.
“We had hoped that common sense would have penetrated Aalst in the meantime,” said Forum spokesman Hans Knoop.
However despite the condemnation, the city’s mayor,Christophe D’Haese, who has consistently defended the carnival participants and even pre-empted the UNESCO decision to delist the carnival, sticks to his previous statements that the carnival ‘’should simply be able to laugh with everything,’’ hiding behind a so-called ‘’freedom of expression.’’
While the Belgian government shamefully never officially reacted to the uproar, the chairman of the New Flemish Alliance Party (N-VA), the largest in the Flemish region of the country where the city of Aalst is located, rebuffed the mayor – who is from the same party- emphasizing his understanding of the sensitivities of the Jewish community.
De Wever, who is also Mayor of Antwerp, a city with a large Jewish community, declared last month that the Jewish caricatures displayed at the carnival last year were “disrespectful.” He said that it was better to take the feelings within the Jewish community into account. “I understand very well that some images, whatever the intention with which they are presented, shock people’s sensitivities. It shows a lack of empathy. It’s disrespectful. End of story,” he said.
Almost one month after world leaders pledged in Auschwitz and Jerusalem to combat antisemitism with concrete actions including in education and legal proceedings, it is highly time to prosecute and penalize organizers, groups or individuals who engage in antisemitic stereotypes in the public domain.
‘’We have a duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jewish communities as they feel again threatened across Europe.All EU Member States stand united in the determination that any form of racism, antisemitism and hatred have no place in Europe and we will do whatever it takes to counter them,’’ declared last month the leaders of the three main EU institutions, Charles Michel for the European Council, David Sassoli for the European Parliament and Ursula von der Leyen for the European Commission. Yes, the Jewish community of Belgium is not only disgusted by displays such as in Aalst especially in a time of growing antisemitism. agree that education is crucial to fight antisemitism but what example this carnival gives to young people who come by hundreds to such events ?